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The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, or, how not to write a good book.

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Title: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Pagecount: 590

Author: Stieg Larsson (D)

Translator: Reg Keeland (A)

Published: 2008

This book does not deserve even half of what we have given it.

Now that that inflammatory first sentence is typed, let me share with you why.

I have never, in my life, been so bored with a book. The first twenty or so pages should have been fantastic. Our protagonist Mikael Blomkvist is going to jail for libel. He’s wondering whether or not he can keep his apartment. He’s having flashbacks about a drunken night on a yacht that got him into the mess he’s in. By the time I get past all of that I don’t give a shit about Mikael or his libel conviction or even that eventually he’s going to be the man that saves the metaphorical day. Mostly I just want him to shut the hell up.

I believe that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo would have been marvelous if it had never been translated. Why, you ask? It is a Swedish book. Sounds racist, right? Right. The book contains references to Swedish culture, Swedish places, Swedish customs and names and history. Because Stieg Larsson wrote this book in Sweden, and probably didn’t expect it to explode like it did, he made no effort to explain himself and I cannot fault him for that. The sad truth of it is I am not the kind of reader who is going to go out of her way to study up on a country that I’ll probably never visit  in order to better understand a subpar mystery thriller with an awful ending. Now that makes me an arrogant American. Right. Like some Swedish chick has never read The Great Gatsby and gone ‘why the fuck do I care about the roaring twenties? Why did they roar? This book is stupid.’

Moving on.

The descriptions and events in Tattoo are so understated they are practically comatose. When I’m reading a book that is meant to be brain candy then I want certain things out of it- visceral descriptions, cathartic release, a desire to read the scene over again. I got…none of that. Let me give you an example. For those of you who haven’t read the book, I plead with you to not bother, it’s not worth it.This is from page 262, the infamous revenge scene.

Then he saw the needle in her hand.

He flopped his head back and forth and tried to twist his body away until she put a knee on his crotch and pressed down in warning. “Lie rather still because this is the first time I’ve used this equipment.”

She worked steadily for two hours.”

Did you miss it? Don’t worry, I did too. Lisbeth Salander (and we’ll get to her later) is tattooing her victim. Tattooing. Now for any of you who have a tattoo- I myself have several- you know it is a painful process. You also know that if it was being done forcibly you’d generally do something to stop it, even if you are handcuffed to a bed. Yet we get nothing. No sight, no smell, no taste. Just…that. ‘she worked steadily for two hours’. Well what did he do in that two hours? Apparently it’s not important. This is but one of my major beefs with the book. Could it be the result of a bad translation? I doubt it. Revenge is meant to be felt, on a primal level. I wanted to feel Salander enjoying every sick minute. I wanted to be holding that gun and feeling the bastard’s chest twitch. I was denied.

The dialogue is horrendous. Everyone in this book sounds the same. Everyone. There are no exceptions. They all speak in complete articulate ‘gee I’m not a real person someone is totally writing me’ sentences with no variance in tone. It gets to a point where you can’t keep anyone straight anymore. Salander sounds like Armansky who sounds like Mikael who sounds like Berger. It’s awful. Once again I could blame it on a bad translation, but by the time I hit the halfway point in the book I was coming to the conclusion that not even a bad translator can be blamed for all evils.

And Lisbeth.


My issues with her are as follows: she’s a rolled up grouping of everything a young man of our day and age would find hot, with a dash of unrealistic aspberger’s syndrome and an attitude that doesn’t at all match up with her past. For one thing, her tattoos are mentioned all the time. Is it really that big a deal, Sweden? Are you afraid of the ink, is that it? Does having a dragon tattooed on your shoulder make you some kind of supreme outcast? It gets annoying. Yes, Stieg, we understand that tattoos can and will be used as symbols for the reader. However, since the dragon tattoo doesn’t come up at all, I don’t need an extensive catalog of every single bit of ink Salander has. And for the record, this book would have made a fuck of a lot more sense if it had been titled The Girl With The Wasp Tattoo.

Her attitude. Salander is very much an ‘eye for an eye’ person and yet she’s been abused most of her life. I’d call that a spoiler but it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. She hates violence against women and yet she bitched Harriet Vanger out to Blomkvist for running away instead of fighting. In Salander’s world, it is her way or the highway. Which is hilarious because her highway is filled with jersey barriers that she doesn’t seem capable of jumping over.If she were as brilliant as Larsson would have us believe, then she’s capable of standing up to and beating the everloving crap out of all who oppose her, both physically and metaphorically. Yet that series of scenes involving her and the rape serve only to move along a further investigation. She’s like the ultimate cardboard cutout. Stand there, look pretty, solve problems.

Look, lady, if you’re gonna be a champion of gratuitous violence in response to domestic abuse, then don’t you half-ass me. I demand that you become a cold and calculated killer. That first fire was an accident and we don’t even hear about it until the second book anyway. If you’re going to be so goddamn sexist and YES she’s sexist, then you need to put your money where your mouth is.

Moving on to the hacking. Why do I need to hear all about how Salander can hack? Why does each program need to explained to me point by point? Can we not just accept that she’s working with electronic black magic and leave it at that? We’re never going to utilize the programs she is and if a reader IS then he or she is probably already a seasoned hacker. It’s not important.

The aspberger’s syndrome. Which everyone assumes Salander has despite the fact that it was only mentioned as a possibility once. Writing about any kind of mental deficiency or illness is hinky no matter where you live. I’ve known people with Aspberger’s. Granted their social skills aren’t sharp but none of them sit like sullen whiny bitches while their futures are being decided for them. This is against Salander’s nature. At this point I don’t even know what her real nature is. It’s been changed up so many times I just want to drop kick grown up pippi longstocking out the window.

…and Stieg, I know you’re dead, but a word of advice: If you say to someone in an interview ‘I think of <blank> as a grown up pippi longstocking’ then for the love of god don’t write it into a scene. Especially when you can’t write a twenty five year old woman to save your life.

The actual plot of the book only ever makes it to the surface a couple of times. There are two distinct events here: Blomkvist’s desire for revenge against Wernstromm, and the disappearence of Harriet Vanger. In a decent mystery novel, the two would have been more related than ‘oh hey I might give you information if you find my niece’ ‘yeah sure that sounds like a fun deal’. The events surrounding Harriet and her family would have been awesome- if they hadn’t all sounded like slightly distressed business bankers talking about it. Really, the characters? They ruin this book. The entire Vanger family should have been taken out back, shot, and then shot again. The only remotely interesting person in the entire family was Isabella, and we see her…twice. Maybe.

The book also should have ended about fifty pages before it did. The mystery was the point of things. The revenge against Wernstromm? That would have made a nice five page epilogue. No. No, we had to drag out the entire return to Stockholm and stalking the mole and holing up to write a book that would ruin the head of a major corperation. Oh, did we mention that Blomkvist is sleeping with Salander? Again?

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo could have been an excellent book. It had all the trappings of a crowd pleaser- it involved forced BDSM, serial killers, computer espionage, family secrets, a corrupt corporation, and the one poor sucker who has to deal with it all. In spite of all that potential, it crashed and burned worse than the Hindenburg. I hate to tell you, Mikael, but Jack Bauer could have gotten all of that accomplished in less than half the time, and sounding ten times cooler.

Look, save yourself the trouble. Pick up something by one of your favorite mystery writers. Chances are, they’re doing it better. I hear that Girl With The Dragon Tattoo made for a great movie. Probably because they threw half the book out in the transition to script. While I am a vhement believer in the book almost always being better than the movie, in this case- hats off to hollywood.

And I never want to hear the words ‘financial journalist’ ever again.


One response »

  1. Pingback: The Stranger- no one gets out alive « The Library At The End Of The Internet

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